Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 1, Isle of the Dead (CD)

Current Stock:
Evgeni Svetlanov, USSR Symphony

“Svetlanov’s volcanic 1966 recording … heartbreakingly intense yet grippingly  coherent conception, brimful of insight and flair … shoots off like a rocket … finale enshrines as adrenalin-fuelled a ride to the abyss as you will ever hear … the pathos of the symphony’s Largo has to be heard to be believed (decibel levels defeated plucky Soviet engineers) … “if forced to take just one version down from the shelves, I’d plump for the great Evgeni Svetlanov’s unforgettably visceral first recording, warts and all” (Gramophone, 2006). (Isle of the Dead): “(Rachmaninov) later recalled the ‘massive architecture and mystic message of the painting made a marked impression on me’. …This inspired what is surely (his) orchestral masterpiece” © James Murray

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


Symphony No. 1 

[1] Grave. Allegro ma non troppo 14.21
[2] Allegro animato 8:20
[3] Larghetto 12:16
[4] Allegro con fuoco 12:41

Isle of the Dead

[5] Symphonic poem inspired by Boecklin’s painting 20:30

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -


A volcanic first recording of a lost masterpiece.



Rachmaninov's First Symphony(1895) was a disaster at its first performance, reputedly due to a lack of preparation by the conductor Alexander Glazounov, who may well have been drunk during the concert. The young composer suffered a major breakdown and writers' block for some time after, and the symphony was never played again in his lifetime (although he wistfully quoted one of its themes in his final orchestral work, the Symphonic Dances). The full score was lost; eventually the work was reconstructed from a set of orchestral parts.

Back in the USSR, in 1966 to be precise, one of the top Russian conductors took an interest in the long forgotten symphony. Yevgeni Svetlanovrecorded a great deal of music, and sometimes his orchestras were more notable for their valiant effort in mastering unfamiliar scores than for hair-trigger responses or expressive nuance - but not in this case. The contemporary Gramophone review of this debut recording described the performance as "volcanic" and "adrenaline-filled". I could not put it better. Listen to the way the orchestra digs into the opening statement: they mean business. The richness of the string sound in the first and third movements comes from the heart, while the excitement generated by the brass in the fourth movement produces a life-or-death urgency you rarely hear from non-Russian ensembles. The mid-1960s commissars fervently wished their composers were still writing pieces like this, so the high level of commitment from Svetlanov and his musicians had a political as well as a musical incentive. The performance of the early tone poem The Isle of the Deadis similarly strong, although it doesn't quite displace my favourite (Ashkenazy conducting the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam)/

The Gramophone review I quoted also suggested the recording engineers could not cope with the decibel level of the symphony's third movement. Well, that was then. Russian Melodiya discs of that period were not well made compared to the products that came out of, say, Germany or Japan. If there were problems they must have happened at the manufacturing level, because this CD sounds spectacular - all credit to Paul Arden Taylor who remastered it for Alto.

Every lover of red-blooded Russian music should grab this disc.